Paving the Way for Equality

Paving the Way for Equality July 18, 2011

Wedding bells will soon be ringing in New York, thanks to the legislature’s historic passage of marriage equality which goes into effect on July 24. And the echoes of that victory are still being heard. Soon after the passage of the NY bill, Rhode Island legalized civil unions, joining the several other states that have done so. (Despite the fact that the Democrats control both chambers of the state legislature, as well as support from independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee, true marriage equality stalled in the face of opposition from M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, the president of the state senate. No surprise, she’s a Roman Catholic.)

The Rhode Island bill, though it’s a step in the right direction, is especially disappointing in how far it goes to appease bigots. It grants significant rights to same-sex couples under state law, but permits religious organizations to completely refuse to recognize them – thus allowing, for example, a Catholic hospital to block visitation rights or ignore care directives of a same-sex partner. With polls finding that broad majorities in Rhode Island support full equality, we can hope that these flaws will be corrected soon. (Note, however, that the Catholic church and other anti-gay groups are demanding that the bill be entirely repealed; even this small step is too much for them to tolerate.)

Meanwhile, as marriage equality takes effect in New York, we’re seeing something that made me happy: the inevitable wave of resignations from bigots working in state government who can’t stomach the thought of having to treat gay couples equally:

Laura L. Fotusky, the town clerk in Barker, N.Y…. drafted a letter to the Town Board and said she would resign on July 21, three days before same-sex marriage becomes legal, because she could not in good conscience issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

“I believe that there is a higher law than the law of the land,” she wrote. “It is the law of God in the Bible.”

If you believe in a god who wants you to hate, Ms. Fotusky, then more power to you, and good riddance! The only people who should serve in government are the ones who believe that all people deserve the full and equal protection of the law. If you want to take a stand for discrimination and prejudice, you should do it as a private citizen.

Seeing the homophobes resign en masse is, at least, an improvement over the tack they’ve taken in so many other states – the petulant stance that their religious beliefs excuse them from complying with the law. And to their great credit, New York state officials are taking a hard line on this and making it clear that a person’s religious beliefs don’t constitute a reason not to do their job:

On Long Island, the Nassau County district attorney, Kathleen M. Rice, sent a sternly worded letter to clerks last week, warning that they could be subject to criminal prosecution if they declined to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

“I want to ensure that our local officials appreciate that there will be ramifications in our county for exercising a personal, discriminatory belief, rather than doing their job,” Ms. Rice said Tuesday.

“The law is the law; when you enforce the laws of the state, you don’t get to pick and choose,” [Gov. Cuomo] said at an appearance in Manhattan, adding, “If you can’t enforce the law, then you shouldn’t be in that position.”

It’s not often you hear such clear words of common sense from elected officials. But with New York as an example and a trendsetter, we have good reason to hope we’ll hear similarly rational statements from more state governments in the near future.

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